Two years after the beginning of the pandemic, traffic enforcement across Washington state remains a fraction of what it was in 2019, even as cars return to the state’s highways at near-normal levels.

In courts across the state, traffic infractions are simply not returning to previous levels. It’s a sign of what police officials largely acknowledge to be true: Their officers aren’t pulling over as many people as they once did.

Law enforcement officials offer varying explanations for why stops are down, from staffing shortages, to continued pandemic closures, a shift in approach to minor infractions, automated enforcement and officers’ wariness of running afoul of new state rules regulating police conduct.

While the downward trend began as the state locked down for COVID in the early months of 2020, court data collected by the state shows a continued drop-off, well past the most stringent coronavirus containment measures and as traffic volumes returned. In fact, court data shows fewer infractions were filed in December 2021 than in any month in the previous two years, except for April 2020. The total in December of last year was less than half what it was in December 2019 and down a third from December 2020, even as traffic volume on state highways was off by just 5%.

The decline is nearly universal, in agencies both large and small. Staffing is the most commonly cited disrupter of traffic patrol.

The Yakima Police Department’s traffic unit is down 75%, according to Chief Matthew Murray. The Everett Police Department currently has just one motorcycle officer in traffic safety, down from four, said Chief Dan Templeman. Until recently, Spokane had moved all five of its traffic enforcement officers into patrol positions, said spokesperson Julie Humphreys.

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What’s clear is that there’s more underlying the downward trend than just pandemic slowdowns, said Steve Strachan, executive director of the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs. “There certainly was a downturn when the pandemic first hit, although traffic was back to pretty much pre-pandemic levels last summer,” he said. “That was really a year and a half ago.”

The decrease in infractions comes at a time when some lawmakers and cities are scrutinizing and rethinking police involvement in traffic stops altogether. It also comes as Washington and the country see record numbers of serious and fatal crashes involving cars.

But when so much about normal life has been upended, pinpointing the precise repercussions of depressed enforcement can be challenging.

“I’m guessing there obviously will be impacts,” said Sgt. Darren Wright of the Washington State Patrol. “But what the extent of those impacts are, I just don’t know.”

Police back off

Traffic infractions hit bottom in April 2020 — down nearly 80% compared to April 2019 — as widespread pandemic lockdown measures carried over from the month before. That cliff correlated closely to declines in traffic volume on state highways.

As traffic evaporated, police backed off face-to-face interactions with the public, including with drivers. “We can’t conduct a socially distant traffic stop,” said Tim Meyer, spokesperson for the King County Sheriff’s Office.

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Traffic volume crept back up after the initial lockdown and so, too, did enforcement. The number of infractions came close to pre-pandemic numbers at points during the summer of 2020 and were 90% of normal in March 2021.

But by late summer 2021, they began to fall again, even as traffic volume on state highways remained steady. Between July and November of 2021, total infractions were less than half of what they’d been two years prior and down nearly 35% from 2020.

There were several possible explanations. Traffic cameras have begun to play a larger role in enforcement. The pandemic continues to be a factor. Offices in large cities remain closed. And school zones are still quieter than before the pandemic.

But Strachan argued there were two main reasons behind the late-summer drop.

The first is staffing. Departments across the state have struggled to retain and recruit officers.

“There simply aren’t enough people to do proactive traffic enforcement,” he said.

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Wright of the Washington State Patrol agreed. “We are several hundred troopers down and so that is affecting our proactive activities,” he said. The agency is still able to react to extreme speeders or collisions, Wright added.

Strachan also argued that state-level police reforms regulating use of force and vehicular pursuits were depressing traffic enforcement. Officers are nervous about the new laws and therefore may be more hesitant to engage with drivers, he said.

“Law changes from the middle of this past year have resulted in really high levels of discomfort because of the ambiguity,” he said.

Meyer said he didn’t think the state legislation was playing a role. Advocates for the reforms, which limit when officers are allowed to use force or pursue fleeing vehicles, have said law enforcement’s reading of the bills is obtuse and overly broad.

Regardless of the bill’s true meaning, traffic enforcement dropped significantly in July 2021 — the same month the limitations on use of force took effect — and has remained low since. It’s a trend similar to police response to people in crisis, which law enforcement has also blamed on the new reform legislation.

In a memo to lawmakers this month, state Attorney General Bob Ferguson said “physical force” was not well defined in the legislation “and therefore there is significant uncertainty as to its meaning.” The Legislature is considering revisions to the law, over the objection of some groups, such as the ACLU.

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Alternatives to enforcement

Meyer offered another reason enforcement may be down: a “reset” in officers’ approach to traffic stops, spurred on by scrutiny of their disproportionate impact on people of color.

“We recognize that, yeah, the traffic stop is, in some cases, a point where we’re maybe not furthering the goodwill of the community,” he said. “And that’s really not where we want to be right now.”

The New York Times recently reported that, over the past five years, more than 400 unarmed people were killed by police following a traffic stop, of which Black people were disproportionately represented.

“In the wake of demands for systemic transformation related to policing and public safety, traffic enforcement is one arena where a lot of change ought to happen,” said Daniela Gilbert, director of the Vera Institute of Justice’s Redefining Public Safety program. Vera advocates for civilianizing traffic enforcement, adding more automated enforcement like red light cameras and focusing on improving road infrastructure.

The Seattle Police Department recently announced it would no longer pull over drivers for minor infractions like driving with expired tabs or a cracked window. Other cities have gone further: Berkeley, California, is moving toward replacing some traffic enforcement with unarmed civilians.

Sen. Joe Nguyen, D-Seattle, sponsored legislation in Olympia for the second year in a row, Senate Bill 5485, to ban traffic stops for several low-level infractions, over the opposition of some law enforcement groups. The bill failed to advance from committee this session, but he anticipates bringing it back next year. While his ultimate motivation is to reduce potentially deadly interactions with the police, the bill would have the added benefit of freeing up officer resources, he argued.

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“It’s one of those things where if you fix this, everybody wins,” he said.

Road safety

Last year was Washington state’s deadliest year on the roads since 2006.

Shelly Baldwin, director of the Washington Traffic Safety Commission, said the pullback of enforcement may have contributed.

“People kind of knew that maybe they weren’t going to get caught doing the kinds of things that they would have gotten caught doing,” she said in a December interview.

For others, the role of traffic enforcement in road safety is not always clear and its prioritization disputed. “We’re pretty certain, at least from the quality of research on the subject, that the relationship is not exactly linear,” said Seth LaJeunesse, senior research associate with the Highway Safety Research Center at the University of North Carolina. “So it’s not like you add a dose of enforcement and therefore you have a reduction in fatal injury.”

Hester Serebrin, policy director for Transportation Choices Coalition, which advocates for more transit funding and better pedestrian infrastructure, said focusing too much on enforcement to improve safety takes away from more lasting and effective solutions. “If the goal is transportation safety, I would hope that we would consider investing in infrastructure because infrastructure is the permanent solution,” she said.

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She pointed out that pedestrian fatalities were on the rise well before the pandemic. Roads should be “self-enforcing” by making speeding difficult to do, she said.

Meyer, with the King County Sheriff’s Office, said he believes the days of using infractions as a yardstick for policing is on its way out.

“I’m not going to measure my success based on the number of tickets I’ve written, I’m going to measure it on goodwill, bigger cases, things like that,” he said. “And so I think you’re seeing that shift in mindset of, our worth isn’t valued based on tickets.”

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